Baudelaire 2004

A new movie, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, is coming out this Friday. This is actually a very big deal if you’re a kid or a teenager who’s been reading the book serial, which is up to number 11, The Grim Grotto, by now.

When I first saw this book in bookstores, I thought it was a blatant Harry Potter rip off. A kid with glasses on the front cover, evil forces, and a teasing pseudo-Gothic style … I’d seen this before.

But I always pay attention when one of my kids likes something, and I definitely pay attention when two of them like the same thing, and when they both like it a lot.

They are always into lots of things, but when a new Lemony Snicket book came out they’d be asking for money with an intensity I didn’t usually see. I also saw them discussing these books intently, searching web pages for explanations, intrigued beyond anything Harry Potter ever did for them.

It turns out the Harry Potter resemblance is mainly in the business plan surrounding the book series, and in each author’s sense of fun. The Snicket books are darker, funnier, more twisted and baroque, and undoubtedly postmodern. It caught my attention when I heard my kids talking about “Baudelaire” and “Poe” — it turns out these are the names of major characters in the book. The cover design, reminiscent of classic Wacky Packages artwork, suggests a chaotic, dark world view, and a kind of story where the ending isn’t necessarily happy.

In fact, a hilarious, self-mocking gloominess permeates these books. Each book opens with a short epigram about the author’s tragic love for a mysterious Beatrice — a reference that will be familiar to anybody who has read Dante.

In fact, the books are packed thick with references to classic authors, and not just any authors. Lemony Snicket only name-checks writers of a certain visionary, bohemian, gothic and mystical school, exemplified by Charles Baudelaire as well as by Edgar Allen Poe and Dante. T. S. Eliot, who was greatly influenced by Baudelaire just as Baudelaire was influenced by Poe, gets a big cameo in the 11th installment. And when Lemony Snicket shouts out to Herman Melville, he doesn’t give us a fish named Moby Dick. Instead, we get a submarine named “Queequeeg.” You’ve just got to admire the writer’s imagination.

It turns out that Lemony Snicket is Daniel Handler, a New York City slacker and novelist who’d been nursing a weak literary career (aren’t we all) before dreaming up the Baudelaire children.

The movie, starring Jim Carrey as the bad guy Count Olaf, will hopefully be pretty good. I’ll certainly be seeing it this weekend.

But I imagine I’ll always like the books better. I’m not really following the plot too closely at this point, but I am in suspense as to when Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Arthur Rimbaud and William Burroughs will show up. Maybe that’ll be book number 12.

Any other Snicketheads out there?

14 Responses

  1. WARNING!If you don’t like

    If you don’t like stories about impertinent children making their dads look foolish, don’t read any further.

    Me (to my seven-year-old son, Stryker): “Yeah, so I bought these shoes with holes in the bottom to keep my feet cool when I run, but about five minutes after I put them on it started raining as hard as I’ve ever seen.”

    Stryker: “That’s ironic.”

    Me: “What did you say?”

    Stryker: “I said, ‘That’s ironic.'”

    Me: “How do you know what “ironic” means?”

    Stryker (rolling his eyes): “Lemony Snicket, dhuuuh.”

    And that’s how I found out about ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’. They are well written and hilarious to the point that they only last for four or five bedtime stories a piece. Anyone that can get a seven year old to read (or do anything other than sit in front of a tv) for hours at a time must be a genius. Screw “Hooked on Phonics”, Mr. Snicket has introduced my boy to the beautiful world of literature.

  2. NPR Interviewed Mr. SnicketI
    NPR Interviewed Mr. Snicket

    I caught the “Fresh Air” program on National Public Radio where Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, was interviewed by Terry Gross. Very interesting, informative, and fun.

    One thing they mentioned is that, in most of the books, young readers are educated on the meanings of new words, but it is done in a subtle way. The narrator introduces a word that is usually considered too difficult for a third or fourth graders, and then explains the word in the context of the what is happening to a particular character. The young reader does not get the sense that they are being lectured; or, more precisely, it is done in the same entertaining mock-lecture tone of the entire book.

  3. well, it just so happens that
    well, it just so happens that once upon a time, mr. levi asher mentioned this lemony thing, and so when a shipment of “books for israel” (special outreach US–Israel project) arrived at our high school and i opened the package and saw Book the First, The Bad Beginning, i decided to test drive it.

    so, still in the midst of this pre-reader examination, i have here a sample of what you mentioned, bill:

    (from page 2)
    Their misfortunes began one day at Briny Beach. The three Baudelaire children lived with their parents in an enormous mansion at the heart of a dirty and busy city, and occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley – the word “rickety,” you probably know, here means “unsteady” or “likely to collapse” – alone to the seashore, where they would spend the day as a sort of vacation as long as they were home for dinner…


  4. This is kind of off topic.
    This is kind of off topic. But, I knew a guy in Chicago whose name was Thomas James Tierney. He owned a comic book shop. He didn’t like “Tom” so he went by “Jim.” Seems logical because that was his middle name.

    Well, Jim moved to Southern California, opened up a karate studio and changed his name to “Chip Stryker.”

    Jim, er, Chip was a cool guy, and man could I tell you stories about him. Anyway, your son’s name reminded me of him and of some fond childhood memories.

  5. Well malt, I live in Southern
    Well malt, I live in Southern California (only for a few more months), and I don’t know Chip Stryker, but I’ll tell you a little Stryker story of my own.

    I was in Singapore at a blues bar called the “Crazy Elephant” having a few and listening to the local blues band. If you’ve ever been to Singapore you know that drinks are expensive, so my friends and I would buy copious amounts of beer in advance while it was still happy hour. We always wanted to buy more than enough so we wouldn’t have to pay regular price, but then we never wanted to waste any either. Needless to say, the only thing that got wasted was us, but now I’m straying from the point.

    So, I was in this bar where the walls are covered with graffiti, listening to the talented vocalist belt out “Message in a Bottle” when I looked up and saw “Stryker was here” in the middle of a wooden beam above my head. I don’t know if your friend or my son put it there, but at that moment I was impressed. Anyways, in my haze and considering that I hadn’t seen my boy in quite some time, it probably seemed like much more of a moment than it does right now, but I thought it worth mentioning.

  6. Thanks, Judih. They gave
    Thanks, Judih. They gave another example on the radio but I can’t remember it, so I’m glad you gave us this one.

  7. Unfortunately, NoI remember
    Unfortunately, No

    I remember when those books started to appear, but as they were usually placed next to the candy at Meijers, I didn’t pay much attention to them.

    After coming here, I begin to regret that decision. Next time I go out (after it stops snowing) I’ll have to look into reading them.

  8. Hey nowOf course I’ve heard
    Hey now

    Of course I’ve heard of the series, but haven’t looked into it at all. I usually stay away from all the so-called popular stuff, but sometimes there is a reason why something is so popular – because it’s just plain good.

    So, thanks to the fine referrals here on LitKicks, I’m going to investigate further and perhaps get my kids going on this adventure.


  9. Snicket on the News WireNo, I
    Snicket on the News Wire

    No, I haven’t actually read any Lemony Snicket books (though I think the name is a delicious thing to say.) But I did just read this article:

    Fortune Comes Knocking for Lemony Snicket

    Tue Dec 14, 8:19 AM ET

    By Jill Serjeant

    LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – An unfortunate event befell the mysterious author Lemony Snicket on the way to Hollywood.

    Despite doing everything in his literary power to prevent ingenious orphans and other children from reading his tales of misery and woe, his “Series of Unfortunate Events” went to the top of global best-seller lists.

    As bad luck would have it — and there is plenty in the quirky, subversive tales of the three Baudelaire siblings — the events of the first three books have been turned into an alarming cinematic event featuring fires, leeches, giant snakes and other forms of extreme unpleasantness.

    All of which goes to prove that there is more to children’s popular culture than a certain British boy wizard, and that stories with unhappy endings, repulsive villains and itchy clothing still have a horrible habit of capturing the attention of young readers.

    “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” starring Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep and Jude Law, opens in movie theaters in the United States on Dec. 17 and Australia and much of Europe the following week, just in time to take the pesky hope and cheer out of the holiday season.

    No one could be more surprised than Lemony Snicket, sometimes known as the seriously self-deprecating American writer Daniel Handler, who claims it has all been a terrible mistake.

    “I am existing in a continuing state of befuddlement that anyone would be interested in these kinds of stories. I was completely amazed that a publisher was interested … So I just thought the film company had lost its mind,” Snicket/Handler told reporters.


    While J.K. Rowling (news – web sites)’s “Harry Potter (news – web sites)” books and movies were famously setting bookstore and box office tills ringing around the world, the 11 books in Lemony Snicket’s “Series of Unfortunate Events” were steadily being translated into 39 languages and selling 27 million copies worldwide.

    They were the first books to knock the Harry Potter series off the top of the New York Times bestseller list. When the 11th book, “The Grim Grotto,” was published in September, it was for a while the best-selling book in the United States.

    The audience for the books was driven by children rather than well-meaning parents despite the fact that the Baudelaire siblings are orphaned in the very first chapter and have to rely not on wands or magic but on their own wits to survive.

    The movie, eight months and 70 different Hollywood sets in the making, is a visual feast that makes no apologies for illuminating the dark side of life and sprinkling it with subversive humor.

    “As the books did, the movie taps into something going on with kids and teen-agers. Even though we have two parents sometimes they are busy and we all feel like we are kind of on our own in the world,” said Carrey, who plays the hilarious but terrifying villain Count Olaf.

    “Kids feel like they are up against not being believed by anyone, that they have to prove everything they say. They do feel they have to take care of themselves,” Carrey said.


    Author Handler has proved so elusive that his identity has intrigued readers as much as the sophisticated language used in the books and the author’s repeated pleas to “read something else!.”

    Handler, a boyish 34 year-old who describes himself as the class clown at school, thought it would be fun back in 1999 to publish under a pseudonym after having written two little-known novels for adults.

    The mystery is sustained on the Lemony Snicket Web site and even a succession of author appearances and book signings have failed to turn him into a household name.

    “I just told children I was there instead of Lemony Snicket,” he said. “Children are lied to by adults almost constantly, so I don’t think it was an unusual experience for them.”

    The warnings on the books, which are emulated in the publicity for the movie, were prompted by a request from the publishers for Handler to write the customary enthusiastic blurb on the back of his first book “A Bad Beginning.”

    “I couldn’t think what to write — like ‘You’ll love this! The parents die!’,” he joked. After running an errand to the pharmacy, he came up with the idea of a drug store-style warning label.

    “I wrote that most people wouldn’t be interested. That was really what I thought. Now it seems like a clever marketing campaign but I just thought there is no way.”

    Handler said the series would end with Book 13 — an unlucky number “for some.” The as-yet untitled Book 12 is due to be published in late 2005.

    “I wrote these books thinking what would be an interesting book to read when I was 10 years old? It turns out that there are a lot of people who resemble me when I was 10. But when I was 10 there weren’t any,” he said.

    Source: Fortune Comes Knocking for Lemony Snicket

  10. Well I’m No
    Well I’m No Snickethead

    Because something about that just sounds wrong — but on the literary references in kids’ entertainment theme, I recently read about a musical group that does folk-type songs geared toward kids. Their name? Trout Fishing in America.

  11. Sounds cool. Jerry Garcia
    Sounds cool. Jerry Garcia and David Grisman did a great kids folk music album called “Not for Kids Only”.

  12. Here I am crusing the net,
    Here I am crusing the net, when I found this. I have been racking my brain for a gift for my grandson, and thanks to you guys, I have found the very thing. When I babysit, i get to read to him. So after Christmas I will report our reactions.

  13. Another Book by Daniel
    Another Book by Daniel Handler

    Called ‘Shut Your Mouth’. I read it two summers ago while working in a bookstore and it was superb. Sort of a modern re-working of the Jewish legend of the monstrous Golem. Except it’s far more postmodern…and filled with sex, drugs, violence, and other fun stuff.

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